This action/adventure game was developed and published by Bethesda Softworks in 1998… a quarter century ago, if you can believe it, and though Bethesda’s fantasy franchise has never been more popular, this fascinating and important entry seems to be entirely forgotten.

It’s time we talked about The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard.

This action/adventure game was developed and published by Bethesda Softworks in 1998… a quarter century ago, if you can believe it, and though Bethesda’s fantasy franchise has never been more popular, this fascinating and important entry seems to be entirely forgotten.

That’s a shame, because it was a hugely important step in shaping the history of not only the franchise, but open world gaming as a whole.

A History of The Elder Scrolls

Let’s start at the beginning, with a quick refresher on the franchise history.

The first Elder scrolls game, Arena, came out in 1994 on PC. The second game, Daggerfall, came out in 1996. Daggerfall is an interesting title too, incredibly ambitious and mind-blowingly massive even by today’s standards….but it’s also an absolute technical nightmare, plagued by the scourge of early procedural generation and awkward design.

An audio/podcast version of this article

Cool to check out, there’s a great Unity conversion that updates a lot of the super rough edges, but even so, it hasn’t aged very gracefully.

After Daggerfall, which was a moderate success, the small team, led by Bethesda now mascot Todd Howard decided to experiment a bit instead of hopping directly into a new main line entry. So, they developed two spinoff games…this one, and another oddity called An Elder Scrolls Legend: Battlespire.

The idea seemed to be to build out the Elder Scrolls as a franchise and add some diversity in gameplay while more fully realizing this world they were creating. Interesting idea, though it didn’t really work out the way they hoped, as you’ll see.

So, Redguard represents an interesting bridge between Bethesda as a niche, PC focused RPG company to the powerhouse developer and publisher they are today.

Here’s a quick glimpse into how Bethesda sees it- from the Elder Scrolls Tenth Anniversary write up on

“Developed along with Battlespire, Redguard was our first attempt at a mass-market action adventure game. Inspired by Tomb Raider, Prince of Persia, and the Ultima series, The Elder Scrolls Adventures; Redguard was developed to be a new breed — a pure action-adventure game.

One of the goals in Redguard was to focus our art time on one area and to see how detailed we could really make something. The island and town Stros M’kai, complete with its Dwarven Ruins, were a new landmark in real-time 3D environments.”

I’m…not entirely sure how true that is, but I see what they mean. For RPGs especially, and in the infancy of 3D gaming, I could see how this level of detail, especially given the scale and openness of the space could seem ambitious and new.

An Elderly Frame Rate

The ambition, as with so many Bethesda games, to this day, came with a cost though, and in this case, it’s a performance cost.

This game was in development for two and a half years, and was made with Xengine, Bethesda’s in-house development toolset. This engine was also used in the creation of Daggerfall, and the other interesting one off, the sister game to Redguard I hope to cover someday, Battlespire.

Not sure what happened here, but Redguard runs terribly. I didn’t play it day of, and I’m using Dosbox emulation to play it now, but from what I can tell by looking at the trailer and other gameplay I’ve seen, it looks like the abysmally low frame rate can’t be blamed entirely on inaccurate emulation.

It’s an interesting example of how our standards have shifted over the years. I was perfectly content playing games like Ocarina of Time or multiplayer Perfect Dark on the Nintendo 64 at single digit frame rates, but that may be due to ignorance being bliss. I didn’t have the comprehension necessary to want something better, but I’d imagine PC gamers in 1998, especially those with cutting edge hardware, would have found this performance poor even by the standards of the time.

As a fun little aside, both of those games I mentioned, Perfect Dark and Ocarina of Time have been decompiled to run natively on PC…so there’s a fun alternative way to play both of those games without those pesky FPS limitations or emulation.

Google it.

The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard Gameplay

But back to Redguard, and on to gameplay. If you come to this game from Skyrim, Oblivion, Morrowind, or even Daggerfall, you may be in for a bit of a shock. This is not a straight up RPG, you’re a pre-made character, and one of the most important distinctions is that this game is played entirely in the third person. Unless you’re one of the twisted few that play Bethesda games in the third person, this is a profound difference that changes just about everything.

It’s also more of a hybrid game, an ambitious, if only moderately successful attempt at fusing an adventure game and an action game.

Again, I’ll let Bethesda speak for themselves. They described Redguard like this:

You would talk to people through keywords, use items to solve puzzles, all progressing an epic story with the hallmarks of a classic adventure game. At the same time, you would explore dungeons, sword fight, swing and leap across chasms with all the flair of an action game.

Another way the perspective shifts things is in the combat which we’ll talk more about later, and the fact it allowed the developers to experiment with dungeon design that includes some light platforming. Not…great.

The issue here is the unbearably stiff and bizarre keyboard only controls that make even basic inputs an awkward chore. This was unusual and archaic even for the time. Keep in mind this was the same year as Valve’s Half Life, which feels astonishingly modern by comparison in just about every way, but especially when it comes to inputs.

Here’s a brief summary of the story, again, straight from the source-

The story of Redguard begins as you, Cyrus, search for your sister, and ends up telling the story of the Reguard rebellion.

From the moment Stros M’kai is in sight, Cyrus becomes engaged in the troubles of his homeland. Run-ins with both the Empire and the Reguard fanatics, the “Restless League,” convince you that your sister has gotten herself into serious trouble. Eventually, you butt heads with Imperial Governor Richton, find out Iszara is part of the Restless League, and get sent to the death-trap ridden Catacombs.

It goes on from there…there’s intrigue and there’s necromancers and ancient tombs and countless fantasy tropes. Nothing super special here, though there’s some fun to be had if you’re a fan of the franchise.
There’s a pre-quel comic you can still download from Bethesda. It’s not very good, but worth seeing to get a sense of the tone. It’s called The Origin of Cyrus.

Redguard reviewed fairly well, with most people enjoying the sense of scale and the puzzles, while not enjoying the terrible controls or the poor performance. Seems fair.

Fine Reviews…Poor Sales

Gamespot’s review and IGN’s review are still up- Gamespot gave it an 8.1 and IGN gave it a 7, which seemed fairly in line with the general consensus of the time.

Both of those reviews directly cited technical issues and the not-so-great controls as well, part of why I suspect it’s not just the emulation that’s to blame for how clunky this game feels.

Redguard was a finalist for Computer Gaming World’s 1998 “Best Adventure” award, but lost it to Grim Fandango and Sanitarium. That’s some rough competition….even though Redguard isn’t really a direct competitor to those more traditional point and click style of adventure games, it was playing in those choppy waters and couldn’t really stay afloat.

Sadly though, despite fairly positive reviews, Redguard did not sell well, and was part of a financially bleak chapter for Bethesda.

To quote Todd Howard in an interview with Gamestar:

We did Battlespire, I did Redguard —a game I love, but it didn’t do well for the company—and we have been working on the Tenth Planet, and there were other projects no one had heard about. So there was this period… Daggerfall was ’96, maybe to 2000, we went through some very rough times. And that was when Bethesda became part of Zenimax, and that gave us kind of a new lease on life, really.

In other words…it didn’t do well financially…though it did lead them, in whatever roundabout way, to creating morrowind which marked a change in their fortune. So, Redguard may not have been a hit, but it certainly had an impact internally, even if it didn’t make a huge impact on the crowded gaming landscape of 1998.

The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard Review

So…what is it like to play now?

It’s a pretty mixed bag overall. Imagine the somewhat esoteric puzzles of an old school adventure game paired with the wandering and keyword based conversation of Morrowind…but a pretty limited version of both. It’s an interesting and unique combination and it is initially compelling, but it never excels in either.

It is a LOT of talking to people, especially early on. Mostly chatting with an NPC, hoping they mention a clue of some kind, heading to a new location, talking to a different person and hoping there’s a new topic highlighted so you can continue down a conversation tree until you get somewhere useful.

Since there’s so much voiced dialogue, I’d be remiss not to mention the…how to put this…exuberant voice acting. It’s not bad exactly, more just…mystifying.

The accents are varied and dramatic, the voices are loud and often grating, but it can be pretty funny if you’re in the right mood, and there is a lot of spoken dialogue. I’d love some insight into what the recording process was like for this one, but to be fair, this isn’t too far removed from the quality of other PC games in this era.

The writing has its charm. It’s not great, but it’s better than I was expecting. You could tell they were having fun with it, and there is a lot of text. Nothing on the scale of later Bethesda RPGs of course, but more than you might think.

The dialogue is far from good by modern standards, but there are some genuinely interesting moments, a few good jokes, but the quality is higher than I expected given the rather humble presentation in other departments. Besides, Bethesda has never excelled in character writing…check out Fallout 3…then play New Vegas…and you’ll see what I mean, so this isn’t as significant a departure in quality as it might be from another studio.

After navigating conversations in the first city and completing a few initial quests, you head out into the wilds of the island of Stros Mkhai. That’s where the fun starts.

Like the mainline Elder Scrolls games, you are wandering an open world, but it’s much smaller than you might be used to. It doesn’t use procedurally generated content like Daggerfall did, so though it benefits from intentionality in its design, it is much smaller, and you do lose some of that sense of scale and the vast unknown.

The advantage is that it feels more thoughtful, it doesn’t have the insane AI designed levels that are completely divorced from any semblance of practicality or reality like in Daggerfall. There’s less here, but what is here feels better, more intentional. A worthy tradeoff.

The game isn’t very long, probably around 20 hours. It’s a much more contained experience than the mainline Elder Scrolls series, and less replayable I’d imagine due to a lack of new characters or divergent builds.

Dungeons and Combat and 3D…Oh My

There are dungeons with puzzles and unique combat encounters…old catacombs, dwarven ruins, a jail…that sort of thing. There’s only a few, nothing like the main line games’ extensive reliance on miniature dungeons, but there is enough joy in exploration to keep you going.

It’s a very human thing, wanting to see what’s over the next horizon, even if that horizon is made of brown and blue textured squares. It’s why open world games are still so popular, and it’s compelling here too…as long as you aren’t too put off by how the game looks.

If you’re familiar with the visual aesthetic of early fully 3D games, and especially early 3D PC games like Thief or Tomb Raider, this is familiar ground. As with so many elements of this game it’s fascinating to compare it to Morrowind, you can see crossover with how they approached character models and environments.

The art direction lends itself to the unique tone of this game. As with Bethesda games that came after this one, loading screens feature concept and character art. In this game, the art style has almost a Disney-like quality, much more vibrant and animation style than what came later. It reminds me of the art style of The Mark of Kri, the PS2 game which shared this visually distinct style.

This is a great example of the tonal difference that makes this game stand out from the other elder scrolls games. It has none of the melancholy or solemnity of Morrowind, it’s much more goofy and silly; think more Pirates of the Caribbean, less Warhammer. Nothing wrong with that of course, it just feels very different, especially compared to the more solemn tone of Morrowind. That game certainly could be goofy at times, but Redguard is overall much more lighthearted.

Music and Writing

The music also further highlights this tonal choice. It’s pretty rough, and there’s not much of it, so hopefully you like it…because you’ll be hearing it on loop a LOT. Given that Elder Scrolls games would go on to feature some of the most iconic soundtracks of all time, it’s interesting to see this more traditional, almost generic adventure music in this game. I found it tiresome, but like the writing, it has a charm…at least the first 20 times it loops.

The story is about as generic as it comes, though it does a fine job filling out Elder Scrolls lore and building out that universe when it was still in its infancy. I am far from an expert in elder scrolls lore, so I can’t speak to whether it’s contradictory to what came before or after, or even if it’s canon, but it does provide the impression of a much larger world, and that’s engaging. I recognize locations and names after playing Morrowind, Oblivion, and Skyrim for so many hours. If you like The Elder Scrolls world, it’s probably worth checking out just for that.

Another big change from the mainline series is the combat. In this case, I think it’s a positive comparison. I like it! It’s still quite basic, but there is some movement involved, you can sidestep, there is basic collision, and it does provide the impression of fencing…sorta. I’ve never fenced before, but hey…maybe it’s like this?

It never graduates to genuinely compelling, and you can still absolutely spam attack and be fine, especially against early human enemies, but it has a little more texture then the simple click click click of Morrowind or Daggerfall.

Should I Play The Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard?

Depends. If you like the Elder Scrolls, it’s an easy recommendation.

It’s incredibly cheap on Steam or GoG, and even if you just play it for an hour to fiddle around, you’ll likely get a lot out of seeing what the franchise was, and what it was trying to be between Daggerfall and Morrowind. I’m not sure I’d recommend playing all the way through, it’s a bit of a struggle. It’s very difficult to control, it doesn’t look great, and like I said, it’s a strange in between adventure game and RPG that doesn’t do either particularly well.

That said, if you have any interest in this era of gaming and can tolerate its eccentricities, there is fun to be had here, again, especially if you like the Elder Scrolls. Even if you’ve only played Skyrim or ESO, it’s a fascinating rough draft for what this franchise would become.

It’s also fun to see how ambitious and experimental Bethesda used to be, before they became the titanic publisher they are today, with their deservedly mixed reputation.

As you probably figured out from the title, The Elder Scrolls Adventures – Redguard was planned to be the first in an anthology series, The Elder Scrolls Adventures, but due to the poor sales, Bethesda scrapped that idea and focused on the mainline series.

Missed Opportunity

Clearly this was the right choice from a financial perspective, but it’s a little sad we never got to see this idea come to fruition in any meaningful way. Building out Elder Scrolls lore with different styles of games, by exploring different themes, tones, and environments is a cool idea.

How neat would it be to see an immersive sim focused on the life of a Khajit thief exploring Riften, or a character action game with an Argonian warrior in the Black Marsh? It’s a big world they’ve made with the Elder Scrolls, literally and figuratively, and I’d like to see more of it through a different lens, the way this game tried to. I’m sorry this ambitious, more experimental side of Bethesda seemed to fade into obscurity as the company achieved financial success and grew.

The Elder Scrolls Adventures Redguard isn’t a great game…but it’s a very interesting one. It’s neat in its own right, the not always successful fusion of action and adventure is unique if nothing else, and exploration can be fun if you can tolerate the clunky controls and creaky performance.

As a blueprint for what the Elder Scrolls would turn out to be though, it’s a really fascinating glimpse into the history of not only Bethesda, but open world games. If you’re interested in the history of games and game design, this is a mandatory lesson.

If that sounds compelling to you, Stros MKhai might well be an island worth exploring.

A contributor to the Forgotten Code collective.

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